I had cause, a few years ago, to try to find out about the slightly mythical Celts. Who were they, where did they really come from, what do we actually know about them and how they lived? In this, the first of a series, I will attempt to answer the first question – Who were they?

The Celts in Europe
The origin of these peoples seems to lie partially in the inhabitants of north-Alpine Europe. The people here are known to archaeologists as the ‘Urnfield People’ because of their burial rites. They cremated their dead, and buried the ashes in cemeteries known as ‘Urnfields’. Their culture is spread from about 1300-700 BC and there is evidence to suggest that they spoke a recognisably Celtic language.

Between 700 and 600 BC, there seems to have been a partial change in burial rite in central Europe, connected with the iron-using ‘Halstatt’ culture. The graves which gave their name to this phase were found at Halstatt in the Salzkammergut in Austria. (Painting of grave goods shown above – image Public Domain) Much of the wealth of these people came from salt mines and saline springs; salt was a much valued commodity, and could be traded for rich articles associated with burials. The burial rite changed in that the bodies were laid out un-burnt on four-wheeled chariots, and covered by an earthen mound.

Model of a Halstatt Grave Barrow – image under Commons Licence – author Wolfgang Sauber

In about 500 BC, further changes apparently took pace. The centre of Celtic power moved to the Middle Rhine. At burials, the bodies were now laid out in the light, two-wheeled chariots which were to become typical Celtic vehicles of war. This second, and most typically Celtic phase, is known as ‘La Tène’. The name was taken from the discovery of a (presumably ritual) deposit of metalwork in the lake at La Tène (The Shallows) on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The La Tène culture brought with it a glorious new art style.

Bronze fitting – image reproduced under Commons Licence – author BastienM

From about 450 BC, movement and expansion of these barbarian people can be traced. It seems that bands of these people made their way down into the Italic peninsula, over-running Etruria, [1] settling there and further south, and, in 390 BC, pushing into Rome. Others went further east, into Asia Minor (Turkey), and in 279 BC they made an unsuccessful attack on Delphi.

The Classics tell us that the Celts were organised into tribes. The Greeks and Romans make comments on their social organisation, and some of their habits and customs, and much of this information can be regarded as genuine.

After the fatal attack on Delphi, it would seem that the Celtic retreat commenced, although a few Celts remained in the east for many centuries.

The Celts in Britain
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that there were Celts of Halstatt ancestry in north-eastern Scotland as early as 600 BC and settlements of people of Halstatt origin from France and the Low Countries would appear to have taken place about 500-450 BC. The initial settlement of these people occurred on the east coast of Yorkshire, and in the south and east. These Halstatt derived cultures are grouped by archaeologists under Britain Iron Age A. [2] *

Bronze Halstatt tool, possibly a razor

Although elements of the La Tène culture were present from the first, the next movement into Britain seems to have taken place about 250 BC. These settlers came across to the east and south coasts, and spread to the south and west. It was these people who introduced the two-wheeled war chariots and, of course, the La Tène art style. It is not known however whether it was these people or their Halstatt predecessors who introduced the Druidic priesthood to preside over religious rites. These, and other bearers of La Tène derived cultures, are contained within the British Iron Age B.

The third phase of Celtic settlements is contained within British Iron Age C. It consists of the influx of Belgic peoples who settled in southern Britain. This movement can be dated to around 100 BC. These people may have introduced the art of enamelling, and brought over the gods and cult symbols from Gaul. It would appear that it was the hostility of this group of people towards the Romans, that was the main reason for Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. Between this date and Claudius’ conquest in AD 43, further Belgic settlements took place.

The famous Snettisham (Norfolk) Great Torc, 1st C BC – Under Commons Licence – author Ealdgyth

The south soon settled down to Roman rule, although the north put up opposition, and in the years between the two Roman invasions there was a great deal of movement to the north by those anxious to escape the Roman domination.

Scottish versions of the Iron Age A cultures of England were present, and trade relations show some connection between southern Scotland and the Iron Age C (Belgic) area of southern England. After the establishment of Roman rule, restless tribes beyond Hadrian’s Wall put up resistance, especially the Maeatae, and the Caledonii, who were the fore-runners of the historical Picts. [3] (Information on Celtic settlement in Scotland was and remains, for the time being, somewhat confused.)

Certain Celtic Peoples
Information about which Celtic tribes settled where is confused, because for much of the Celtic era, the results of archaeology and history cannot be made to coincide. More is known about certain tribes than others. The La Tène culture was certainly important and, as we have seen, was known for its art. Yet these people were masters of many other techniques. Not only could they inlay metals, but long before the invention of the necessary rolling equipment, they were also capable of producing the finest iron. They even seem to have mastered the art of casting soft iron, a technique once thought to have been perfected only in the nineteenth-century. They could boil ornamental glass, coloured and white, and they knew how to enamel. They could cover copper objects with tin, and may have been the first people in the world to silver them with mercury. They devoted much care to the manufacture of weapons. the chain-mail of Celtic princes could have stood comparison with those of the high middle ages, if stone representations have been correctly interpreted.

Ornamental gold mounts on bowl – Commons Licence – author Rosemania

The Celts of Gaul were apparently most hospitable people, never locking their doors, and always welcoming passers-by. The Gauls were known to Caesar as ‘Galli’ and to the Greeks as ‘Galatae’.

On the other hand, the Cisalpine (on this side, i.e. the Roman side of the Alps) and Transalpine Gauls (across the Alps, i.e. the other side) used to cut off the heads of defeated enemies and hang them up, like trophies, outside their houses. [4] The Gauls were described by Diodorus [5] thus:

“They are very tall in stature. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so; they bleach it, washing it in lime and combing it back from the foreheads. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others, especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth.”

According also to Diodorus, the Transalpine Gauls were men of few words who spoke in riddles, leaving most of their meaning hidden, and he thought them intelligent and capable of learning. Yet Strabo [6] found these same Transalpines simple-minded and limited. Much of what we can learn about the Celts is, of course, subject to such opinion.

Overview map of the Hallstatt (yellow) and La Tène (green) cultures. After Atlas of the Celtic World, by John Haywood; London Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2001, pp. 30-37. By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, Commons Licence

[1] Etruria – a former region of Italy between the Tiber, the Apennines, and the River Magra. The Etruscans were a superior intellectual Aryan race originating from Asia Minor. Although they settled in Italy, they were different from and far more advanced than their Italian neighbours. They spoke a strange language, all traces of which have unfortunately been lost.
[2] More on these groupings can be found in Pagan Celtic Britain – Anne Ross p39
[3] Generally regarded to be Celts – they could merely have been Picti – the painted people (more of which in the next part of this series) or they could have been Pictones, a conquering aristocracy from Pictavia, or Poitou. Anne Ross believes they originated form the Caledonii Op cit p41
[4] Diodorus says that they preserved the heads in wooden boxes.
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian. His 40 books were a universal history from mythical beginnings to the time of Caesar. He used varied literary sources with little judgement of his own, and often without regard to exact chronology. For certain periods, though, he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Strabo was a Greek geographer. He lived from about 58 BC-25 AD. He spent his life in travel and study. His Geographica in 17 books included in Book 4 a study of Gaul, Britain and Ireland, although the countries he travelled through were not described with equal accuracy and fullness. (Below – Strabo’s map of Europe – Public Domain)

Further reading:
The Celts – Gerhard Herm
Celtic Britain – Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts – G Dottin
*The classification of the Iron Age is, according to archaeologist and author Louise Turner, in a state of ‘flux’ at the moment. For more information visit Here

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog Site on July 1st, 2016